The Lewandowsky Recursive Fury Ethics ‘Approval’

The now-withdrawn Lewandowsky Fury paper (link) is possibly one of the egregious examples of ethically compromised research encountered. Delve into the paper, the first thing crossing one’s mind is: how did the university ethics committee approve this project? This was the study protocol – Lewandowsky’s associates would carry out real-time surveillance on people criticizing his paper, prod and provoke them, record their responses and perform ‘analysis’. How did they say yes?

Lewandowsky’s correspondence with University of Western Australia (UWA) officials has been released (link). Amidst a storm of emails on this previous work, he writes to the secretary of the ethics committee (10 Sep 2012) of his intention to start another project:

This is just to inform you of the fact that I will be writing a follow-up paper to the one that just caused this enormous stir. The follow-up paper will analyze the response to my first paper …

Lewandowsky states there will be no interaction with his subjects: none of the research “will involve experimentation, surveys, questionnaires or a direct approach of participants of any sort“. (emphasis mine)


What would the research be? According to Lewandowsky, his team would “analyz[e] “Google trends” and other indicators of content that are already in the public domain (e.g. blog posts, newspapers, comments on blogs, that type of thing)”. The research would “basically just summarize and provide a timeline of the public’s response.”

The email is a remarkably misleading and limited description of the project he and his associates conducted.

The ethics office response is further divorced from reality. The approval was granted as a “follow-up” study to the ‘Moon’ paper. The ‘Moon Hoax’ paper was itself was approved under an application for “Understanding Statistical Trends”. As recounted here, “Understanding Statistical Trends” was a study where Lewandowsky’s associates showed a graph to shopping mall visitors and asked questions (link pdf). This application was modified to add the ‘Moon hoax’ questions on the day the original paper was accepted for publication. The same application was modified for the ‘Recursive Fury’ paper. Each modification introduced ethical considerations not present in the previous step. Nevertheless, three unrelated research projects were allowed to be stacked on to a single ethics approval by the university board. In this way, Lewandowsky was able to carry out covert observational activities on members of the general public, as they reacted to his own work, with no human research ethical oversight.

Lewandowsky pitches his study proposal as non-intrusive, observational and retrospective in design: there is “no human participation”, the “content is already in the public domain”, and “irrespective of whether we then summarize that activity”. What he implied was there was minimal concern for more elaborate safeguards and vetting usually put in place when working with human subjects.

Yet during the period of study, Lewandowsky was in direct conversation with his study subjects (even as he ostensibly observed them). On a posting spree, he wrote 9 articles at between Sept 3 – 19, 2012. About half of these were written after he approached the ethics office on the 10th. All but two were written after he announced that he was already collecting data, to the university deputy vice chancellor on the 5th. Among individuals named in the paper as harboring conspiracist ideas, three posted detailed comments with multiple questions responding to these posts, on his website. The subjects wrote numerous posts at their own blogs on Lewandowsky’s actions in the same interval. The flow of comments, appearance and final content were influenced by the second author, John Cook. A team headed by Cook operated as moderators at, deleting parts, or whole comments offered by the subjects in the same interval. The elicited comments and posts were harvested as data for the paper.


The study was thus not an examination of archived material on blogs. As the authors themselves describe, they recorded subject comments and blog-posts in “real-time”, responses occurring to events set in motion by themselves. It cannot be considered a observational study either as authors interacted with the purported subjects during the period of study.

In her reply, the ethics secretary directs Lewandowsky to the UWA Human Subjects research web page (link). The page contains a ‘risk assessment checklist’ to guide researchers to whether a planned study would need ethics approval. It has these questions:

  1. Active concealment of information from participants and/or planned deception of participants
  2. Will participants be quoted or be identifiable, either directly or indirectly, in reporting of the research?
  3. Will data that can identify an individual (or be used to re-identify an individual) be obtained from databanks, databases, tissue banks or other similar data sources?
  4. Might the research procedures cause participants psychological or emotional distress?
  5. Does the research involve covert observation?

The answer is a ‘Yes’ to many of these questions.  ‘Participants’ declared to be conspiratorial by Lewandowsky are directly identified by name in the paper. The element of covert observation is undeniable.

The possibility of ethical breaches with internet-based research are well-understood. Clare Madge (2007) observed ethically questionable research could come to be carried out “under the radar screens of ethics committees” simply owing to the ease and speed of internet-based research resulting in ‘shoddy cowboy research’ and proliferation of ethical misconduct. The study design and conduct of the Lewandowsky et al 2013 ‘Recursive Fury’ contains numerous ethical failures. Lewandowsky’s email characterized his work in terms which turned out to be their opposite. There was no formal application and there was no review and consequently the prospective,non-observational nature of his project went unscrutinized. 

Madge C. 
Developing a geographers’ agenda for online research ethics Prog Hum Geogr Oct 2007; 31(5): 654-674



  1. Paul Matthews

    Shub, thanks for this. As I said in my comment on Lewandowsky’s latest rant, which to my surprise the journal published, the recursive fury paper is a blatant violation of the ethical procedures of the field.

    Falsehood number one is the claim of no direct approach of participants of any sort, as you point out.

    Falsehood two is the claim of ‘summarizing the public response’, when in fact he named individuals in tables and labelled them as conspiracy theorists.

    Falsehood 3 is the claim ‘there is no human participation as such’. The University of Western Australia (in addition to the page you linked) gives a clear definition of what a human participant is. It includes for example anyone who is “identified in a record” or “identified in a databank”, so clearly those individuals named in the paper and the tables are participants.

    Moving on to his breaking of the ethical rules, the same UWA web page linked above provides four key principles of human research, which it says must be followed:

    Respect for human beings,
    Research merit and integrity,

    The recursive fury paper breaks all four of these, particularly the first and last.

  2. stewgreen

    “The now-withdrawn Lewandowsky Fury paper” yes we know it’s as good as withdrawn BUT the actual abstract webpage still says :
    “The article has not been retracted or withdrawn. Further information will be provided as soon as possible. ” .. Lew et al cheated.
    With DramaGreens it’s all dirty PR …and stuff the truth
    cos they only want to push the narrative

  3. Barry Woods

    I had directly interacted with Lewandowsky via email (for LOG12). I had also commented on his blog Shaping tomorrows World..

    Worse. I had interacted with Michael Marriott (co author), on his blog Watching the Deniers… Asking him to tone down – his attitude towards me. publically labelling me, Denier, Disinformer, Verified Bullshit (red rubber stamp on a Watts graphic – my article) and worse (for a psychology researcher) Dunning Kruger..

    labels also applied by Marriott to Anthony Watts.

    Marriott also had a very p[public battle with Jo Nova (also named in ‘Fury’) and Marriott was behind the smear of Jo’s husband as being an anti Semitic conspiracy theorists! (language that Lewandowsky repeated in one of his videos)

    hardly a wise choice by Lew as an independent researcher for Fury.
    Marriott was attacking Watts Up and Jo Nova’s blog posts about Lewandowsky and LOG12, and directly interacting with me.

    Marriotts behaviour alone, I believe, when I spelt out to Frontiers in a telephone call to Frontiers, resulted in the paper being pulled the same afternoon.

  4. johanna

    Thanks for the update, Shub.

    As one of those who was misrepresented in the withdrawn paper, I wonder when they are going to fess up that it is unpublishable, not least because of the lies and ethical violations throughout.

  5. geoffchambers

    I didn’t know (or had forgotten) Marriott’s activity which Barry mentions in the comment above. Lewandowsky’s actions in early September (those weird rants at Shapingtomorrowsworld, some of them apparently written from a hotel room in Germany, according to McIntyre’s calculations; plus the hiring of Cook and Marriott) are those of a desperate man.
    One thing I’ve never understood is why Lewandowsky hired Cook after being so badly let down by him. The emails obtained by Turnill show Lewandowsky making the same demand to eight blogowners. All of them say yes straight away except Cook, who gives an evasive answer followed by a false promise. And yet they go on to write that SkS pamphlet together, and two years later Lew fixes an assistant professorship for Cook and hires him as co-author!

  6. Simon Hopkinson

    What is the status of moderated data? Certainly SkS has a rather well-documented history of editing sceptics’ comments to diminish them and undermine the credibility of their authors. Do any of these papers use comment content from SkS? If so, are the raw data available in the SI prior to adjustments, with meta info on the reasons for adjustments? If not, would this not potentially amount to data fabrication? Perhaps even fraud?

    I identified Lew too early as a very poor scientist, so spent very little time poring over his papers. For a moment, I forgot how influential poor scientists can tend to be in the climate science sphere.

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  8. tlitb1

    Nicely put together summation Shub 😉

    There is so much material to examine with Lewandowsky that I think there will much more to say as time goes on.

    Shub, I think you hit on something significant here:

    Nevertheless, three unrelated research projects were allowed to be stacked on to a single ethics approval by the university board. In this way, Lewandowsky was able to carry out covert observational activities on members of the general public, as they reacted to his own work, with no human research ethical oversight.

    What is the ethics procedure for? What does it mean? Why have it?

    The link you provide has UWA saying this about the alleged purpose:

    Commencing a human research activity without ethics approval is a serious issue and may constitute research misconduct.

    Retrospective ethics approvals cannot be provided, as this would contravene the requirements of the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research.

    Do UWA care or is their procedure just a rubber stamp?

    Who knows?

    If ever UWA face some future *real* case of ethical lapse that involved someone outside the denier community who *counts*, who actually *suffers* then a diligent council would have no trouble to point to this history to show how useless their “ethics” procedure clearly was; and maybe *is* today still.

    There is no redeeming evidence that anything has changed since Lewandowsky left.

    I will air my speculative that this guy Lewandowsky is a kind of – if not – *the*- weakest link in the thread of alarmist soft science media hegemony, – a typical example of what the eventual collective narcissistic fail will look like 😉

  9. Barry Woods

    I received the EXACT same reply from UWA as Steve McIntyre…

    which of course did not address ANY of the concerns I raised with UWA.

    A copy of my complaint is here (sent to UWA and Frontiers)

    not the best, (Frontiers had imp[osed a stupid deadline) could have done with a good edit, but I was on holiday, and wrote it on a tablet, with my family being annoyed wasting my time on it.

  10. geoffchambers

    Simon Hopkinson
    Yes, they use moderated material (from shapingtomorrowsworld, not SkS) and actually demoderated a comment to be able to quote it.
    Whether this amounts to fraud is largely irrelevant, given that they regularly garbled and misattributed quotes. I analysed some of this at
    showing how a wrongly linked, misattributed quote leads back to another (ignored) quote which leads back in turn to a comment at SkS which is the true source of the nonsense they’te trying to annotate.
    Much of this has been transmitted to “Psychological Science” and “Frontiers” in letters of complaint, but they only act on letters that mention lawyers. Psychological Science has published my comments in which I call Lewandowky a liar (though not Barry Woods’, much politer, comments). They have published an article accompanying the recent Lewandowsky / Mann paper by their news editor, which claims falsely that complainants were given a right of reply in the journal.
    A Scott has just commented at Climate Audit that Frontiers overruled the objections of the peer reviewer of “Recursive Fury” and published anyway.
    The real scandal lies in the behaviour of the publishers of supposedly serious scientific journals. Lewandowsky is simply a symptom.

  11. Barry Woods

    A Scott’s comment: (ref peer reviewer pulling out)

    Posted Nov 8, 2013 at 11:22 PM | Permalink | Reply
    Interesting … Michael Wood was one of the original reviewers of the Recursive Fury paper. I emailed and asked him, to the extent he was comfortable, if he would comment on his being removed as a reviewer after initial publication.

    He cordially and timely responded indicating he had issues with the paper, asked for revisions, but they were not made, hence he asked to be removed as a reviewer.

    Recursive Fury also listed Woods paper as a reference.

    It is interesting to see Lewandowsky involved in reviewing a Woods paper. While it makes sense based on shared interests I had the distinct impression Michael Woods was not enamored of the Lew crew, but I certainly could be wrong.

    Steve – have you asked Woods to participate in the discussion here?

  12. Shub Niggurath

    “To my knowledge, the Fury paper has not been withdrawn.”

    Journals are getting inventive in the number of states a paper can attain, or remain in. The Fury paper was published. It was modified after publication – in itself an unprecedented step. Really, there is no modification after publication as then the paper becomes something else, and is no more what the reviewers and editors originally approved. Now, it is in a limbo state – ‘not withdrawn’. But there is no widely recognized state of ‘withdrawn’, in the first place.

  13. stewgreen

    Shub thanks for clafiying “no widely recognized state of ‘withdrawn’” that’s for proper Science (I now cross post from BH)
    – but Science rules don’t apply to Climate_Science™
    The religion Climate Science ™ isn’t actually a science as a result of the “ends justify the means” practice by the people who deal with it.* They have exempted it from a the normal rules that apply to science. One could make a list of 50 : fact being by consenus instead of proper validation, the focus being on proving hypothesis instead of disproving, results being twisted to confirm the hypothesis in every event (Popper’s definition of pseudoscience), skepticism being banned instead of accepted, pal review being the norm, maliciously adjusting data, keeping methods & data secret, policy being implemented on theories which don’t actually predict real world outcomes, being publicised straight to pop-sci press before peer review completed etc. etc.
    – Now there are proper sciences/engineering that deal with aspects of climate science from physics/ stats to even economics & psychology , but once they hand over their research to “climate science” dramagreens, it stops being science.
    – Hence Lew et al are exempt from the ethics code cos what they are doing is “Climate Science ™” not real science

    – The big problem is the damage this all has done to the CREDIBILITY of real science
    .. And on this occasion the reputation of University of Western Australia (& Its board : Professor Paul Johnson etc.) who probably mistakenly think that in 70 years time there will be a blue plaque there & in Bristol.. commemorating the saving of the world
    … but now would you jump to employ UWA alumni or recommend an overseas student study there ?

    * from Alinsky : You are saving the planet, so yes you break the rules. They give you a Nobel Prize before you start, so what will they give you once you’ve done it ? And no one else thinks of the chhhildren !

    ………. 1988 the year “the logic died” …….. (H/T absolutelyboring101 in FP).

  14. Barry Woods

    Michael Wood – the Frontiers reviewer of Fury that pulled out, has a paper citing Recursive Fury at Frontiers!!!

    I have added this comment underneath the abstart:

    There is a problem here, one of the papers that is cited is not currently available from Frontiers.

    Additionally the same paper (Lew 2013b) was unavailable over 3 months prior to the publication of this paper.. (and is still unavailable) if the hyperlink in this paper is clicked for LEW 2013b, it returns to the abstract of this paper (truly recursive?!)

    The paper in question – Recursive Fury, Lewandowsky (2013b) et al.. has this statement on the Frontiers website:

    “This article, first published by Frontiers on 18 March 2013, has been the subject of complaints. Given the nature of some of these complaints, Frontiers has provisionally removed the link to the article while these issues are investigated, which is being done as swiftly as possible and which Frontiers management considers the most responsible course of action. The article has not been retracted or withdrawn. Further information will be provided as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience. ” – Frontiers

    As this paper was subject to multiple ethics complaints and factual errors (I made one of them) and has been unavailable for over 7 months, ‘pending investigation’ it seems perhaps unwise to cite it, until this issue has been resolved.

    It also seems very odd, to cite a paper, when the authors presumably knew
    (ie it is another Frontiers paper, and the lead author of the LEW 2013b, was a reviewer of THIS paper, and the lead author of THIS paper, pulled out of being reviewer for ‘Recursive Fury’ Lew et al 2013b)).

    I have heard nothing from Frontiers about my complaint for months, yet authors are now citing this still unavailable paper. This seems very inappropriate.

    I hope Frontiers will be contacting me soon to explain.

    there are currently 2 Retraction Watch articles about Lew 2013b:

    perhaps the authors of this paper should read the comments, and the comments under the abstract of Recursive Fury.

    (especially as the lead author of this paper (Michael Wood), PULLED OUT from being a reviewer of Recursive Fury, Lewandowsky et al)

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  19. w.w.wygart

    In the name of exhaustive thoroughness, if nothing else, we may have to consider the possibility that the types of behaviors we see in the creation and the publication of the ‘Moon Hoax’ and ‘Recursive Fury’ papers is so now commonplace that only those outside of academia are able to identify it as abnormal, unethical, or even illegal.

    The other thing that seems to go unidentified in academia is the LOOSE CANNON. You would think it would be easy to identify with the creaking wheels and the explosions going off on all sides, but maybe not. After all of this you would think that Lewandowsky would be reigned in and put out to pasture. Unfortunately, the way justice seems to work in academia, when a sacrificial goat is eventually required the only person likely to get sacked over this whole sordid affair is ethics officer Kate Kirk.


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  21. N.Lee.Gessing

    As long as they use the word “withdrawn” somewhere, they don’t have to actually withdraw it. It’s similar to the one-time-pays-for-all ethics question. A nod and a wink.

    What’s really at issue here is that he views any who disagree with his work as being too stupid to qualify as human, and thus unworthy of the ethical considerations afforded human subjects. And his fanatical belief in his own infallibility makes oversight, in his mind, preposterous. He is part of a growing cadre of self-appointed “uber-men” within the scientific community. It’s the elephant in the room. Everyone knows it’s there, but no one wants to be the one to say it aloud.

    You won’t shame him – he has no shame. You won’t trap him. And you won’t get a satisfactory response from the University, because they are in the business of politics. You went on holiday, and they stayed home and tinkered with the paradigm. They actually enjoy watching you thrash about, protesting the fact that they are not following the rules in a game that they no longer play.